JOHN BIGGS had a busy evening last week, on the fourth Thursday of the month. By the time he reached Newham to attend a charity dinner in aid of combating acid attacks, he had been to three other meetings already that evening.
His appearances at the other meetings probably had to be cut short so that he could reach the Newham dinner – and he did only just reach the event in time to give a brief speech after all the others speakers had done their turn.
“I’m in the terrible position of keeping you from your food, so I must speak briefly,” he opened, before going on to point out how busy he is. “My apologies for being late,” he said. “This is my fourth meeting this evening, which is not unusual for me – but this is of course the best, so I’ve saved the best till last.”
There was a good turnout of Labour representatives at the meeting, with Rushanara Ali MP and Stephen Timms MP both present, as well as GLA Member Unmesh Desai.
It was the end of John Biggs’s speech which enthralled the audience. He had begun slowly. The East End was at the heart of the outbreak of acid attacks, he said, and local MPs were “leading demands on the Government to change the law.” He spoke of the Charter he had introduced in Tower Hamlets. Then something changed.
He began to refer to austerity-driven cuts in police numbers – and he was off. “We all know about austerity, he said, “but I think that we are clear that when we see a 25% cut in our police officer numbers then people are becoming concerned and […] people are worried and they want us to fight on their behalf.”
How did he intend to fight? “What we need to do is to get the Government to recognise that austerity is one thing, but safety is not negotiable,” he declaimed. This is really unprecedented – and certainly not the kind of talk Tower Hamlets residents are used to hearing from their Executive Mayor in, say, the Council Chamber.
Biggs then moved on to “motor cycle riders, courier drivers, delivery drivers” and the way their employers are exploiting them in terms of security at work and of wages.
Here he really got into his stride. “Couriers and delivery drivers,” he said, need to be recognised. They need to have politicians like myself standing up for their interests and standing up for their rights. I am a trade unionist. I am very proud to be a trade unionist. I have been a trade unionist for over 40 years now and trade unionism is a vital part of keeping people safe in our communities.
“Fundamentally, trade unions are about ordinary people getting organised, getting together and looking after each other, being heard, campaigning, lobbying and using political connections, using the safety and security and the interests of their members as a weapon through working together to help improve their quality of life and their safety.
“We deal with [safety] by people organising across our communities and I want to stand up for vulnerable workers… We need to stand up for each other because if we don’t have the status and the unity and the strength of organisation then we’ll be taken for granted!”
Having reached the climax of his speech, John Biggs calmed down. “I have already spoken at massive length and I think the starters are about to come. So thank you very much for inviting me here this evening – and I am on your side.” The audience must have thought they were listening to Jeremy Corbyn himself.
So there you have it. Next time you’re having a chat with John Biggs about his policy of charging vulnerable adults for social care, or trying to sell off the remaining Council nurseries, strike up the chant: “John, you’re on our side! We’re standing up for each other because through unity and strength of organisation we won’t be taken for granted! We’re just ordinary people getting organised, getting together- and looking after each other!” He’ll love it.
•Watch the speeches to the Charity Dinner for Acid Victims:
(John Biggs is introduced at 1.04.)